Bloodstained Scythes and Filleting Knives

Why are lawyers so good at writing about crime?

Editor James Schofield talks to crime writer Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards is an astonishingly prolific writer of crime fiction. He has written eleven crime novels of his own, edited numerous short story collections and reviewed crime fiction for magazines, journals and websites. His first published book, though, was about “the less than spine-tingling subject” of computer contracts.

After securing first class honours in jurisprudence at Oxford University, Edwards chose a law firm whose partners shared or at least understood his burning ambition to write crime novels. Remarkably, his desire to write fiction was matched by an aptitude for legal practice. Today, he is head of employment law at Mace & Jones, a leading solicitors’ firm with offices in Manchester, Liverpool and Knutsford – the same firm whose partners were so attracted by the young man with a first class law degree and a consuming interest in writing fiction.

He has published seven legal books (two as co-author) and more than six hundred articles and contributed to several multi-author legal textbooks.

Away from the office, his reputation as one of the leading writers of contemporary crime fiction has risen steadily. After publishing his first book in 1991, he wrote seven novels with a legal background, featuring a solicitor in Liverpool called Harry Devlin – “a man with too much curiosity for his own good”. More recently, however, his crime novels have relocated to the Lake District. The first in a new series, The Coffin Trail, was a runner-up for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. The second in the series, The Cipher Garden, continues the story of the main characters in this somewhat less than idyllic rural setting: an Oxford historian, Daniel Kind, who has migrated to the Lakes for a new life with his partner; and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett, who heads the local Cold Case Review Team.

A third novel in the same series, The Arsenic Labyrinth, is to be published in February.

LEJ: What tradition are you writing in?

Martin Edwards: I see myself as writing what are very much contemporary crime novels, but crime novels within the tradition of the detective whodunit, from Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin, but with a contemporary feel to the stories and characterisation.

LEJ: Do crime writers like yourself start off with an interest in plot, and fairly superficial characters – and only later develop an interest in more developed characters?

Martin Edwards: It’s not quite like that. Different writers vary. The more I’ve written, the more I’ve developed an interest in the characters and their relationships. With increasing confidence, it evolves. It’s not a policy.

LEJ: Have you ever worked out who your readers are?

Martin Edwards: The feedback from Conventions – and I attend a lot of Conventions! – is that they are a pretty broad range of people. It is probably impossible to pigeonhole them. One of the interesting things about people is that their range is enormous. There is no set group of readers.

LEJ: Why did you choose the Lake District for your latest series of novels?

Martin Edwards: I was interested in writing a series that was quite different to my previous series, the Harry Devlin series, and Took My Breath Away. All of those had a legal background. I wanted something quite distinct from that. I had explored a rural background in a short story some years ago. I enjoyed writing that and it made me think. I know the Lake District passibly well and, although it is a popular place, it has never featured in a series of crime novels. So I thought it would be an attractive start to use this as the background to a developing relationship over a number of books.

LEJ: Do you work like a puppetmaster, creating strong characters and then letting the plot develop from their interaction?

Martin Edwards: I think all of the books have got that, and something less fashionable, a good plot, a strong mystery. But in terms of the characters I don’t know the course that this relationship between Hannah and Daniel will take. It moves on with each book. It is a question of seeing what comes naturally to each story. That’s part of the appeal – not writing to numbers but seeing how it feels.

LEJ: What’s been the reaction in the Lake District to these novels: have they been thrilled or not?

Martin Edwards: It’s been very positive. People are interested and curious. They’re very helpful.

LEJ: What can you tell me about the third book in the series, The Arsenic Labyrinth, without giving anything away?

Martin Edwards: The third is set in Coniston. It involves a rather mysterious character called Guy, who is returning to the Lake District after an absence of ten years. And it is also the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of a young woman. Hers was a case that Hannah had been involved with, in investigating her disappearance. And the case is reopened at the behest of a journalist who seems to know more about the case than a journalist should do. Daniel is experiencing problems with Miranda [his partner] and writing a book about [the art historian and critic, Samuel] Ruskin.

LEJ: Have the characters remained true to your original conception of the series?

Martin Edwards: No. Daniel was meant to be the main character. Hannah has become much more important, possibly more significant than Daniel – though their relationship is central. This illustrates the truth that you create the characters but what happens from there is not actually what you expected.

LEJ: How have you managed to combine legal writing and crime novels?

Martin Edwards: Legal writing and fiction writing are poles apart. What I think I would say is that the analytical skills that a lawyer needs to have are pretty helpful and relevant when it comes to constructing a plot that hangs together and to setting up an elaborate mystery that doesn’t fall apart.